In many of our societies, failure is heavily stigmatised. From a young age, we observe that failure is punished and that success is rewarded. We therefore learn to try to avoid the pain (both emotional and physical) associated with failure by aiming to achieve success in line with the definitions established by the external influences in our lives.
But inevitably, at some point in our life, we tried to achieve a desired ‘successful’ outcome – and we didn’t achieve it. An exam grade that didn’t meet the required standards. A coach picking someone else to play in a sports team. Stopping a musical instrument despite our parents’ protests. Going on the same diet as the influencer we follow on social media and not getting the same results.
We didn’t succeed.
And as a result, we experienced emotions associated with the pain of failure – for example, feeling ashamed, humiliated, guilty, overwhelmed, disappointed, worthless, powerless, helpless, useless, stupid, angry, depressed, doubtful, uncertain, indecisive, and so on.
Due to the intensity of these negative emotions, our past failures may still exert significant power over us in the present day to the extent where they hold us back from chasing after goals or ambitions that come with a risk of failure.
In light of this, below are 7 powerful methods to re-frame failure to lessen the extent to which our failures control and influence us, and most importantly, allow us to find purpose in our failures.
I'd love to hear which of these you have found to work best for you, which you're looking forward to trying, and any other ways of reframing failure that you would add.
1) Considering every failure as feedback or a learning experience – “failing forward”.
This is one of the most well-known methods of reframing failure. Instead of simply focusing on how we failed, we consider why we failed – and we draw valuable insights from this.
Silicon Valley tech start-ups operate in an incredibly challenging business environment. However, despite the high likelihood of failure, they’ve embraced the fact that innovation and learning often comes through failure! Their ‘fail fast, fail often, fail forward’ mantra has its flaws, but at its core is testament to their awareness that failure is a vital stepping stone on the path to success.
Failure is simply life’s way of saying that the actions we took didn’t yield the outcome we desired, that we should change our strategy if we want to achieve different results, and that there are many lessons we can take from our ‘failure’ to help us eventually form our winning strategy.
Looking at failure as a learning experience is incredibly potent. As a junior tennis player, losing tennis matches were an incredibly disheartening form of failure for me. However, as my coach pointed out, “you don’t learn when you win; you learn when you lose!”
Our failures are simply lessons.
And success is our reward for learning that lesson and applying it effectively. Once we do this, we progress to the next failure-lesson. I consider these to be good failures – failures that occur as we strive to achieve a goal that is meaningful to us and arise as a result of progress towards that goal.
2) Considering every failure as an experience that boosts our resilience, self-confidence and 'bouncebackability'.
“Bouncebackability” is a beautiful term that I first heard from the Great-British Olympic rower, Ben Hunt-Davis, in his book, ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’. Simply put, it refers to our ability to ‘bounce-back’ from failures and setbacks.
Given that you’ve inevitably experienced failures in your life – and that at this moment, you’re alive to be reading this – it’s fair to say that you’ve bounced back from each of those failures in some capacity!
In the context of this reframe, it doesn’t matter how well you bounced-back, but simply that you bounced-back at all! This awareness helps us to recognise that we have the resilience to handle failure and the capability to bounce-back from failure, increasing our confidence in our ability to repeat this if needed.
Once we’ve developed this confidence, it becomes easier to look back and analyse our past failures using the feedback/learning experience reframe to glean how well we bounced-back – and then learn the valuable lessons that will enable us to bounce-back better from future failures.
3) Training ourselves to enjoy failures and mistakes.
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. However, many aren’t aware of the failures he experienced on his path to success – including being cut from his high-school Varsity team on account of his height!
Jordan himself was famous for saying: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Did Jordan only have this attitude towards basketball? Not at all. He applied the same attitude to failure to his business ventures and hobbies. His Nike Jordan-branded shoes, endorsements, restaurants and car-dealership have made him a billionaire, but he has also failed throughout his business career – most notably as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team. And in terms of his hobbies? Apparently, his skiing instructor explained that Jordan enjoyed his mistakes, and that it was this mentality that allowed him to get the most out of them.
It’s possible that we won’t be the Michael Jordan in our respective fields and professions. But Jordan’s mindset towards failure is reproducible, provided that we don’t allow our ego to stand in the way of learning, we manage our emotions in response to failure and we keep striving to learn and grow from our mistakes – and even enjoy them!
4) Remembering that failing does not make us a failure.
“I have failed”, “I am failing”, and “I might fail” are behaviour statements. They refer to the outcome of a behaviour – in this case, failing – that we might experience. However, “I am a failure” is an identity statement. It refers to a definition of who we are, not how we behave.
This is extremely important to keep in mind, because behaviours are not as difficult to change as our identities. They’re simply things that we have a tendency to do, to the extent that they may have become habits.
However, our identities are much deeper-rooted. Not only are they harder to change; we don’t necessarily want to change them because they make us who we are. And, to paraphrase Vietnamese Zen-Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: out of a fear of the unknown, we would rather identify with what is familiar, regardless of whether that identity is no longer serving us.
So, yes – you are permitted to fail. But you are not a failure.
5) Teaching others the lessons failure has taught us – creating purpose in failure.
Many of us perceive failure to be without purpose, despite the lessons it can teach us. This is understandable. Life is short. We want to spend more time enjoying our success, not suffering because of our failures.
After all, even if we succeed in the future as a result of the lessons we learned from failures, at this moment in time, we don’t know if that success is guaranteed – let alone when! We hope it will happen, and that success will feel even more satisfying because of the rough road we’ve taken to reach it…but what can we do in the meantime to create purpose in our failures?
One of the most powerful tools to create purpose in any experience is to use it to teach, inspire and empower others to achieve their goals, overcome similar obstacles and convey that they too can discover strength by confronting their own failures, insecurities and vulnerabilities.
In fact, a consistent theme in every single talk or workshop I deliver is the use of personal anecdotes relating to failure – and I have plenty to share!
Not only does it provide a relatable context to an idea or tool that I’m sharing, it also helps people to understand that there is hope in their own journey despite the setbacks they’re facing, that they too can bounce back from their failures, and that they too can use their own experiences to empower and inspire others.
6) Considering every occasion or mistake which led to not achieving our desired outcome as a failure, and in doing so removing the power that the word ‘failure’ holds over us.
This counter-intuitive approach is surprisingly powerful at ‘tricking’ our mind and reducing the intensity of emotion it associates with the word ‘failure’. Historically, many of us have only associated ‘failure’ with intense, negative emotions. However, we can dilute that intensity by attaching the ‘failure’ label to other experiences in which we didn't meet the successful outcome we desired (the definition of 'failure'), but also didn’t consider it to be important enough to be a failure.
By diluting the intensity of emotion which we associate with failure, we take away much of the power it holds over us. This can result in a decreased intensity of our fear-response to new goals or experiences which involve a risk of failing, and it becomes easier to proceed without our fear of failure threatening to sabotage us.
I’ve found this approach to be very valuable. In my case, it’s allowed me to look at past workshops I’ve ran (which have a high cost of failure to me) that I’ve deemed to be average, and then separate not just the mini-failures from a single event (which yield valuable lessons), but also the mini-successes!
It's worth noting that this is a technique for reframing failure and reducing the leverage that the word ‘failure’ has over us. It does not account for how we naturally attach different emotional weighting to the failures in our lives, and nor is it trying to ignore this. It’s perfectly understandable that failing at something you deem to be important feels much worse than failing at something you don’t.
In a future article, I’ll cover a topic called the cost of failure, which explains how and why attach more emotional weight to different types of failure. I’ll deconstruct the cost of failureinto its various components, and then discuss how we can reduce the emotional intensity of each cost component of failure.
But, for now, back to reframing failure!
7) Acknowledging that there is no shame in falling if we get back up after we fall.
This is the failure re-frame which has helped me the most throughout my life journey – especially when the concept of failure exerted a lot of power over me during my youth. In essence, it's redefining the word.
Failure isn't an outcome; it's our response to the outcome.
To use an analogy many of us can relate to, there is no shame in stumbling and falling on the path of life. But whether we truly fail depends on our response to our fall.
To me, failure is when we stay down after we’ve fallen, which represents giving up.
Let me clarify; I don’t mean giving up on a goal or a dream.
Goals and dreams may evolve with time as we ourselves grow and develop, and I would argue that it takes courage to deviate from our current path to begin a new one. Quitting something that doesn’t resonate with you isn’t failure. It’s a sign of self-awareness and a willingness to take action towards a more fulfilling life. In fact, it’s a step that I consider worthy of respect given that we take it fully knowing that there is inevitably going to be scrutiny and judgement from others that threatens our ego, self-confidence and credibility.
No – to me, failure is giving up on ourselves. Giving up on life.
So, perhaps, you’ve fallen over – and it hurts.
Let the tears flow. Curse your mistake. Lament your bad luck.
Treat your bruised ego. Nurse your broken pride. Grit your teeth.
Learn your lessons. Create your strategy. Prepare to take action.
And rise again.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.